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Tree roots, sidewalks and utility lines don't mix

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Growing trees in parking lots and around sidewalks can be tricky. Developers save trees only to have the roots break up sidewalks a few years later. A University of Georgia training program has been set up to save the trees and the sidewalks.

The UGA Extension Service is using a $20,000 Georgia Urban Forestry Council grant to train county extension agents in Georgia's urban counties.

"This grant has allowed us to develop a train-the-trainer program to deliver urban forestry educational material," said Sheldon Hammond, the Northwest Extension District program development coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Correcting poor practices

Hammond hopes the statewide urban forestry training will help dispel some misunderstandings.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there, especially in the area of pruning," he said. "People are using truly poor pruning practices, and the trees are suffering as a result."

Many people don't understand the nature of a tree's root system, Hammond said.

"We constantly see utility lines run 3 to 4 feet from a tree," he said. "People think trees have really deep root systems. Actually, they have really shallow root systems. When a tree's roots grow and stretch, they often bust through concrete and asphalt along the way."

Hammond said cutting the roots isn't the solution. This kills the tree and creates a bigger problem.

"You don't see these problems in production forestry," he said. "We're hoping this training program will serve as a starting point for spreading information and educating people on urban forestry."

Agents will train in their counties

The train-the-trainer program is designed to teach county agents, who then train people in their counties. The program was set up through the UGA Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture in Griffin, Ga.

"Our goal is to train 40 urban county agents," Hammond said. "This will lead to 400 Master Gardener volunteers being trained with advanced tree education that they can take to the public."

Urban county agents include those in Atlanta, Athens, Savannah, Valdosta, Macon, LaGrange, Augusta and other urban areas statewide.

Hammond said these county agents are answering more and more questions related to urban forestry.

"They help people manage green space in urban areas, deal with trees in construction areas and asphalt parking lots," he said. "Managing trees in urban environments is a whole new dynamic."

Urban county agents also train homeowners on how to properly grow and maintain trees in urban settings.

After-the-fact help

"Management techniques for trees are different in urban areas," Hammond said. "Unfortunately, a lot of our agents deal with after-the-fact management issues. They get more fertilization, health and water questions than selection questions."

Hammond said many urban forestry questions come from parks and recreation crews, city government maintenance departments and home developers.

The county agents were trained in February. They are now beginning to train people in their counties. The grant funds provided each agent $300 worth of educational materials, such as reference books and CDs.

The UGA Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture is seeking grant funds now to present similar training programs on turf and landscape management and water quality and quantity.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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